THE COCK HAVING CROWED, the morning is underway. The sun hasn’t yet begun beaming the kind of light that casts shadows, so for now you’re free as a soaring kite to let the pre-sunrise coolness wafting on the wind caress your cheeks.
But you only really awaken fully when a series of short and sharp shrieks pierces your very skullbone. You realise you didn’t know there was so much silence in the jungle until it’s persistently shattered by this frenetic broadcast ostensibly of pure panic.
A herd of chital or spotted deer are intently eyeing a nearby bush almost in unison, their white tails up like those of a pack of pomeranians, and are calling out in alarm, possibly having spotted a predator.
But they don’t disperse forthwith. Instead, every few seconds they stomp their feet, strain their necks forward and go “Aouww!” The sound is thin, high-pitched, and loud. There is a certain unimpeachable fragility to their voice, a nervousness almost heartrending, and a sense of vulnerability that is almost too heavy for the delicate baritone to carry. A glass might shatter if kept in earshot of the call; if not from the frequency, certainly from the nervous energy it seems to be suffused with. So much so that your heartbeat seems to rise in direct proportion to the regularity of its occurrence, until anticipation hits a peak. You strain every optic nerve to peer in the same direction, aching to sight a form, to discern a shape, to impart to your desire the wings of reality. But nothing manifests just yet. “Chital are known to call for all sorts of things,” your naturalist informs. “Sometimes they call after a predator’s scent left behind at a spot, for snakes and jackals, and sometimes even upon seeing humans and safari vehicles.”
As you resume your peregrination, these revelations occupy your mind until your advance is once again halted, this time by a high-pitched whinny travelling by the aerial route, and coming to a halt on a tree. “Kee ki ki ki ki ki ki ki ki krrrrrrrrrr,” it declares, sounding like the recording of the crank of a petrol engine starter motor played back at thrice the speed. A male lesser (or black-rumped) flameback woodpecker – for the crest is red – has landed on a tree trunk, looking for grub – a pursuit to which he presses himself now in a most audible way. Using his zygodactyl feet and tail to secure a firm footing, he hammers away at the bark with his beak as many as 20 times a second, to get to the arthropods that lie underneath, and scoop them up with his long, wiry tongue. Having provided the vocals prior to his alighting, this is now the percussion segment of his morning raaga, as his drumming away on the trunk, if you weren’t looking, would strike you as the handiwork of a machine, or of a super-fast camera equipped with a wooden shutter in the middle of a burst.
The star attraction of Kabini in the wood works department, however, is one of the flameback’s more limited-edition cousins, the white-bellied woodpecker. With a much softer call but a way more unique colouration, it speaks less but pecks as vigorously, often seen in pairs on either side of a trunk near you. The pecking order is set then.
Not far away, you’re asked to wheel around to behold the maker of a declarative sound – a bit like a physical sciences trainer blowing the whistle to command the party to a state of assembly. A slow and deliberate Ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-keeeeyaaaah, rising to a crescendo. The seemingly ballistic call to war is actually the solicitation of a union. A crested hawk eagle, otherwise a silent operator, is issuing his breeding call. And it breeds in you the appetite for the mysteries of the natural world.
With a prominent white-tipped black crest and a bright front, this raptor is part of the main course of a Kabini wildlife watcher, sometimes literally so because it’s not implausible to find one feeding on a fresh kill, of a bird, such as an egret, a cormorant, a jungle fowl, or a small mammal.
Moving on, you realise that the very air that carries the sound appears to impede its transference when you move swiftly through it, as you are wont to do in a safari vehicle, and it occurs to you in plain astonishment what a feat it is to hear sounds that are very easy to miss while on the move and in this new light comes the realisation that to be in tune with the sounds, you must at once be consonant with the jungle, and that such a consonance comes only when you spend time there is both a sobering as well as exhilarating thought.
Elsewhere it may be true that time is money, but in Kabini, time is knowledge – something far more precious.